Ever wondered how some of the more uniquely-named St. John places came to be known by such monikers?
That information is now just a mouse click away, thanks to the St. John Historical Society’s new online map.
The place names which appear on the map were gathered during the V.I. Humanities Council grant-sponsored “Mapping the Cultural Geography of St. John, 1840s to 1940s” project. Grant writer Crystal Fortwangler, project director Beulah Dalmida and SJHS advisors and board members interviewed several culture bearers, collecting a wealth of information on St. John place names, some of which survived orally from generation to generation and are being recorded for the first time ever.
The results of the project were presented at the final SJHS meeting of the season on Tuesday evening, April 13, at the Bethany Moravian Church.
“It’s critical to understand the oral history connected to these places,” said Fortwangler. “Place names are often linked to families, people or events.”
Information has so far been gathered regarding Coral Bay and East End, and SJHS hopes to continue the project, eventually mapping the entire island of St. John.
Culture bearers interviewed for the project were either born and raised on St. John, or have lived on the island for a long time; can trace their genealogy back many generations on St. John; and went to school on the island.
“Local names can now be maintained for generations to come,” said Dalmida, a native St. Johnian herself. “We had a great time interviewing the culture bearers, and they talked from their heart. I cannot say how important this project is for us.”
Several of the culture bearers were present at the April 13 meeting, including island icon Guy Benjamin, who spoke of the importance of recording place names.
“When you look at a map, sometimes you can’t find us,” said Benjamin. “We want you to know we’re here.”
Culture bearer Alvis Christian grew up on St. John in the 1950s, a decade that straddled the way life used to be and the island many residents know today. He spoke of the caring mentality and resourcefulness of native residents in earlier times.
“I like the old way better,” said Christian. “This project is going to preserve a whole lot of what we would have lost in the future.”
SJHS’s interactive map can be found at the society’s Web site by clicking on “Maps” at the top of the home page. From there, users can select from several maps they would like to view, all the way from Peter Oxholm’s 1800 map to a recent satellite image of the island.
The maps contain markers, which users can click on, that will reveal the place name, an explanation from one of the project’s culture bearers, and information on the historical context of the place’s name — often stemming from Danish times.
SJHS webmaster Peter Burgess debuted a few of the place names, including “Breakwater,” where the gas station is currently located in Coral Bay. The area got its name because it was known to flood, and during the 1840s-1940s, water even broke over the road from the sea on particularly rough days.
A place called Soldier Wash, located in John’s Folly, got its name from the thousands of soldier crabs who traverse through there on their way down to the sea each September, when they change out their shells.
SJHS board consultant David Knight encouraged the audience to embrace cultural place names and pass them down to ancestors.
“By memorializing these place names, they will be put out there,” said Knight. “The cultural heritage of St. John is extremely endangered.”
To learn about the nearly 100 place names already recorded, visit the SJHS Web site at www.stjohnhistoricalsociety.org.